Friday, July 3, 2015

INSIDE OUT - The Joy of Sadness

Welcome back, Pixar. We missed you.

Why is that we define Pixar's best films by what is most likely to make us cry? The Toy Story films each have at least one major sequence devoted to seemingly deliberately evoking this reaction - Buzz realizing his true nature in TS1, Jessie's abandonment in TS2, and the resigned unity of the remaining toys in the face of immolation in TS3. The opening ten minutes of Up is a whirlwind of emotions, ending on a bitter that almost demands the following 90 minutes of sweet to balance out the film, but is cited as one of the finest accomplishments of Pixar's legendary 2001-2010 run.

And it seems that, with Inside Out, Pixar has made the film that examines this very phenomenon, digging deep into basic psychology to explore the beautiful loss of leaving behind childhood.

The framework Pixar's newest film isn't that dissimilar from the original Toy Story - in the mind of 11-year-old Riley, Joy runs the "Control Center" to keep balance among the other emotions. Or so it would seem - almost immediately it's made clear that Joy has very little understanding of what role Sadness should play, seeing her primarily as a buzzkill to be averted in order to keep Riley's "default" setting happy and fun. Joy takes particular pride that the girl's "core memories" (experience that make up the bedrock of Riley's personality) are happy ones, which she attributes as causation for the child's balanced and content life.

Of course, a basic rule of storytelling is to start with "Everything was just fine...until it suddenly wasn't!" Riley's parents move across the country for her father's new job, and in the Emotional Control Center, the balance is disrupted catastrophically when Sadness touches one of Riley's Core Memories, turning it blue and melancholy. In the confusion, Joy and Sadness are both thrown from their environment into the maze of Riley's greater consciousness and must make their way back, not unlike Buzz and Woody having to return to Andy's room before Moving Day.

Here, however, Pixar is playing an even deeper game. Not only are there a myriad of heady concepts having to do with the "rules" for how emotions and memories and dreams (and even imaginary friends) work that are all gracefully introduced and then brilliantly utilized (this movie is a perfect case study of how to do setup and payoff), but their purpose all ties into the bedrock of the film's message. As the film follows Riley's crumbling happiness, not only does Joy begin to see Sadness as important to the girl's well-being, but the film posits that sadness is one of the most important coping mechanisms humans have. Our memories will always turn sad, the film posits, because the past is inherently tragic, even if only in small ways.

Inside Out ends with the thesis that our emotions are not just separate entities, but as we grow, they grow more entwined and complex, weaving in and out of each other. We relish brief sadness because it allows us to mourn ourselves, express grief at our own mortality in increments. It is the ultimate catharsis, and allows us to process our experiences healthily rather than unbalance in one direction or another.

It's difficult to judge this film so early in the context of the Pixar canon, but if it's not their best, it's certainly in the conversation. This is a film that children must see, that their parents should feel obligated to take them to. It unpacks a too-little explored aspect of the human condition in a way that a child can follow (even if they might not comprehend all of it initially), and also functions as a potent mix of drama, humor, graceful storytelling, and inventive animation apart from its thematic focus.

In short, it's a film that makes us happy to feel sad.

1 comment:

  1. As always your writing is outstanding, clear and precise . . . and just enough art to make it more than a review. Too bad there'll be no Terminator critique from you. :(